Sunday, July 14, 2024

‘The Magicians’ Season 1 Finale Review: 1×13 “Have you brought me little cakes?”

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In The Magicians Season 1 Finale, our heroes come face to face with the Beast in a confrontation that will surprise book readers and new fans alike. As usual, spoilers for all three books of The Magicians book series, and for this episode, a trigger warning for rape.

Quentin and Julia Become Time Travelers

After an interminable Previously On, we pick up where we left off, with Julia and Quentin exploring Fillory. Except, wait, it’s actually several days after we saw them last, and they are actually looking for Ember. We can tell because this episode features first-person narration from Quentin, who is telling us the story of Fillory and Further.

In the woods, Quentin cuts his hand so that his blood will “call to Ember,” which is the weirdest security code ever, but it allows them to enter Ember’s cave and we get our first look at one of the twin Ram Gods of Fillory. Ember is not so much an anthropomorphized ram as he is a man with hairy legs and curling horns. Ember only has time to ask us “Have you brought me little cakes?” (hey, that’s the title of the episode!) before Quentin is all “I remember that night, I remember that night, REWIND!”

And then we rewind the story to again catch up with Quentin and Julia just after they entered Fillory. Quentin is writing a story about the newest Fillorian adventure: which is ironic, because they accidentally become a part of the apparently iconic original Fillorian story, when Jane is caught by a hunter’s trap.

Well, at least they aren’t trying to pass off any more Narnian lore as Fillorian?

It’s just like Harry Potter at the end of Prisoner of Azkaban: Quentin and Julia are waiting around for the Witch and the Fool to show up to save Jane, wondering where the heroes are, until finally they realize that the only people showing up are them.

After freeing Jane from the trap, Quentin and Julia realize that Martin has followed them into Fillory! And this time, he’s here to stay. The three of them go to a master craftsman who is probably not a dwarf to ask him to make a weapon capable of killing “a master magician.” Which doesn’t sound like it’s the same thing as a god, but okay. Like, I get that master magicians are hard to kill but shouldn’t that be because of their magic? I’m struggling to understand how the type of metal – or really anything else physical – would be more mortal to the magician than anything else. Unlike gods, even the greatest magicians are still flesh like you and me. And how would you measure the mastery of the magician, anyway? Can the knife sense midi-chlorians or something?

Why yes I am looking for plot holes again, thanks for asking! And this time I think I found a big one: isn’t Martin following Quentin into Fillory a paradox? Quentin only convinced the other Brakebills to go to Fillory because the Beast killed them in every other scenario they ran with that weird probability spell. But how is it possible that the probability spell foresaw the Beast killing them, when the Beast wouldn’t even exist if he hadn’t been able to follow Quentin in the first place? I mean, the Brakebills were only after him because he was after them first, they never would have gone to Fillory otherwise…

Oh wait. Because of course we have a whole book series about the Brakebills going to Fillory Just Because, so maybe this really is just another loop of that series, time hopelessly criss-crossed and retconned, cause and effect only determined by which end of time you’re looking at.

It really is turtles all the way down, man.

Julia and Quentin pause for a moment at Ember’s temple with Martin in tow, when the wind starts blowing and the clock-trees start ticking. “She’s coming!” Martin warns, before running off in panic, leaving ­­­­Quentin and Julia to come face to face with the Watcherwoman…

The Magicians S1E13 Watcherwoman

…who turns out to be Jane Chatwin! I knew that BAMF wasn’t dead! Except that she actually still might be, because this is Time Traveling Jane. Apparently Jane was such a thorough planner, she had previous time-loop versions of herself randomly wait 70 years in the Fillorian past in the exact right location to meet the future time-loop versions of her champions.

Who might also be tomatoes? That whole metaphor kind of went over my head; I don’t farm as such outside of video games.

We first start to learn Something Is Up with Julia when Jane magically distracts her, revealing to Quentin that Julia has some kind of patch over her memories. Quentin is also given the unfortunate task of telling Jane that she has died on this time loop, but she seems strangely unconcerned about preventing it. It’s almost like it makes no sense for her to be there otherwise, like maybe someone told a past version of herself about the risk and she took steps to prevent her death.

Whatever the reason she’s there, Jane is happy to send Quentin and Julia into the Fillorian future so they can catch up with the rest of the Brakebills. It’s not at all awkward for Quentin to bring his former love interest who once psychologically tortured him to meet his school friends, including his very recent ex-girlfriend, the two people he cheated on her with, the person she slept with to get back at him, and Josh. Actually Josh isn’t awkward at all, he just kind of hangs out in the background of the episode because why not?

The Fillorian Campaign

When they go to pick up the magical knife from the magical craftsman (I guess Martin was too busy to pick it up at any point in the last 70 years) it’s actually his son who fulfills the bargain and gives them “the Leo Blade,” compelling them to fulfill their half: the High King must marry his daughter.

One of the fun things about Quentin narrating this episode is that he can vocalize the subtext in any given scene. And in this scene, Quentin is absolutely certain that he’s going to be the High King of Fillory: that he’s the hero, the chosen one. He’s Jane’s tomato vine; he’s volunteered to give his life for Fillory, he got the knife, and now he wants his reward. Well, he wants to be High King anyway. He doesn’t particularly want to marry the knife maker’s daughter, whose name is Fen.

As soon as we found out that this woman shared a name with a doomed mercenary from the books, I was convinced that she would die to get Eliot (who is the High King) off the hook from this marriage. I could literally not have been more shocked that Eliot actually went through with this marriage – and not just went through with it, but apparently consummated it as well.

After all that the show has put him through this season, forcing him to marry a woman is right up there among the worst. It’s not even clear what the point of this subplot was, either. Was there not enough going on in this episode? Did they really need to invent a reason for the knifemaker to give them the blade, or for Eliot to stay in Fillory?

My guess is that they wanted to show that Eliot was ready to give up his unhealthy coping mechanisms and commit to Fillory.

“I’m doing this, Margo,” Eliot tells her. “I am miserable. My life, it doesn’t work, nothing has ever fixed that. …drugs, sex, food, booze…not even magic. But maybe…it all led to this, to now, for a reason…it’s actually finally going to make my life not just about me and my thoughts and feelings, something…”

“…bigger,” Margo finishes.

Queen Margo the Destroyer
Queen Margo the Destroyer

That’s a really nice speech: almost directly lifted from the books, too. But why does Eliot need to be married in order to say it though? Is it not enough for Eliot to love Fillory? Shouldn’t Eliot be protesting this? Shouldn’t literally anyone be protesting this?

Nope, even Margo just wants to tell him the super convoluted rules of Fillorian marriage that are supposed to make us understand that Eliot’s love for Fillory is permanent. Because of his wife.

Gag me.

You know what else makes me gag this episode? Jizz. At the wedding, they realize that none of them can hold the Leo Blade, which is what sends Quentin and Julia off to find Ember in the scene from the beginning of the episode. Ember not only provides them with a jar full of his special god-juice, but he removes the patch on Julia’s memory, finally revealing to her, if not to the audience, what really happened the night the New Traders tried to summon OLU.

The look on Julia’s face is our second clue that Something is Up with her, and It Is Not Good. But we still don’t get to find out what.

Instead, as Eliot consummates his marriage, the rest of the Brakebills go a-questing for the invisible castle (I’m sure production loved that set-piece) where they are able to rescue Victoria…and Plover.

The sight of Victoria, safe, was surprisingly cathartic. She even teaches Penny the secret of teleporting multiple people at once, which is rather anti-climactic. (More tattoos.) I don’t blame her or Josh for wanting to get the hell out of Dodge after what they’ve been through, even if I wonder why they even bothered to introduce Josh if they were going to get rid of him so quick.

But the real story here is Plover. Even for book readers, the reveal of Plover’s torture at the hands of the true Beast is shocking and unexpected. We’ve already seen for ourselves that Plover is a monster, so I doubt anyone will shed a tear for him, but the reveal does serve to build the dread and tension in this scene, which makes it all the more reel-worthy when Quentin realizes that it’s Martin who is the Beast.

The Hero

“I was the hero of this story. It all just felt like the exact moment that my entire life had been building up to, all of the reading, and dreaming, and loneliness, and magic, all of it. And then…well, and then this story actually happened. And I started to realize the truth.”

Quentin closes his notebook. He goes to talk to Alice.

This scene is a break from the action of this episode, just a quiet moment between this couple for them to reaffirm that they still care about each other, despite what has happened.

For Quentin, this scene serves to transfer the hero’s burden from himself to Alice. Quentin has realized that this isn’t a story, he’s not the hero, and he’s come to Alice because he believes their best chance rests with her.

Aaaand here is where we have to get out our skepticism. Aside from Quentin’s feelings for her, there really isn’t much to suggest that Alice should be the hero of this story rather than Quentin. As I’ve noted before, Alice’s skill at magic has been written very inconsistently, and there have not been other signs indicating her hero status, as we might point towards for Julia, Penny, or even Eliot, the new High King. For sure, Alice is the hero of the books, but only after everyone else has failed, and she has to sacrifice herself to do it. Here, there’s no thematic or narrative satisfaction in Quentin giving Alice the hero token, except that he’s finally laid it down himself.

Alice picks up the Leo Blade.

And it’s in this moment, just as they are finally ready to face the Beast, that the show reveals what really happened to Julia. First the trickster, in the guise of Our Lady, yanks Richard’s heart out through the back of his chest before taking over his body. With one gesture, Reynard the Fox, as he introduces himself, murders Silver, Bender, and Menily. He goes for Kady next, but Julia intercedes, begging him to take her and spare Kady.

So he does. He rapes Julia, and lets Kady go.

The aftermath of the rape is just as harrowing. We next see Julia literally slipping in the blood as she tries to clean it up. She’s calls Marina of all people for help, and in a moment of human empathy, Marina does what she’s asked. At Julia’s request, Marina puts a patch on her memory.

Back in the present, burdened with the knowledge of what happened to her, Julia accompanies the rest of the group to track down the wellspring of magic and confront the Beast. He’s constructed an exact replica of Plover’s writing room to house that source…which seems to be whiskey.

Of course magic in the Magicians universe is alcoholic.
Of course magic in the Magicians universe is alcoholic.

It’s a thrill to finally see the Beast’s face. And even now that we know his true identity, the man who attacks Quentin and all his friends isn’t really Martin Chatwin. Martin Chatwin has been burned away by the power of this spring, this source of magic, that is so powerful it has destroyed his humanity.

That sounds awfully familiar…

Quentin attempts to distract the Beast so that Alice can attack him, but someone has stolen the Blade from her, which gives the Beast the opportunity to go after her, leaving her bleeding on the floor, just as he did in the midst of the probability spell. The Beast throws Eliot and Margo against the wall, holds Penny immobile with one gesture, and amputates his hands with another.

And just as Julia puts the knife to the Beast’s throat, we get another flashback.

“Something is happening,” a bloody Julia asks for help, staring incomprehending at the Fox’s semen. “Something is still happening,” Julia tells the audience as her eyes flash green. 

“I want to make a deal,” Julia tells the Beast, her knife at his throat. “Lets,” Martin purrs, and whisks her away.

The last shot of Season 1 is Quentin’s stunned face.

What Happened to Julia

The rape scene itself was handled about as well as we could have asked for: it doesn’t last that long, there is no nudity of any kind, and the scene mostly focuses on Julia’s face. After the credits roll, they even included a link to the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which is awesome. 

The problem with the way the show handled the rape was that they basically pretended it didn’t happen for the first half of the episode. It is disturbing to rewatch the episode knowing what happened to Julia immediately prior, that the only reason she’s acting normal is that she doesn’t know. There is certainly an argument to be made that the showrunners wanted to pack the event into the finale; that they wanted to delay this reveal in order to up the tension, to keep Julia’s trauma fresh in the audience’s mind before she teams up with the Beast.

But there’s another argument: they wanted to film those sweet scenes of Julia and Quentin going to Fillory, Julia and Quentin meeting Young Jane, and Julia’s PTSD would have gotten in the way of that. So they came up with this memory patch so that they wouldn’t have to deal with Julia’s trauma until it was convenient. And that argument gives major side-eye to the fact that the aspect of PTSD they’ve decided to focus on is Julia’s revenge.

It could be very interesting to have Julia team up with Beast in order to get revenge on her rapist. Martin is also a victim, which I’d imagine would make him sympathetic to Julia, and he is obviously capable of carrying out that revenge. But that’s exactly the problem: now the second victim on this show is also on the path to becoming a villain.

There is no one reaction to rape. It’s very understandable, and very human, that Martin and Julia would feel this way about their abusers. Part of me is glad the show is going to give screen time to Julia’s revenge, because one of the major flaws of the books, in my opinion, is that Reynard’s comeuppance happens off screen. No show has a responsibility to perfectly represent the many different experiences of PTSD. But every show needs to be cognizant of the message it’s sending, and at the moment, the connection they’ve drawn between victims of abuse and revenge is problematic, to say the least.

It’s far too early to predict what the eventual impact of teaming up with the Beast will be to Julia’s story (except, obviously that it will change a lot). It’s hard to imagine that the show will take her full villain, but it’s equally hard to imagine Julia joining Eliot, Margo, and Quentin on the thrones of Fillory after betraying them to the Beast. I think it’s safe to assume that a lot of the events we were expecting from The Magician King will go out the window, although I’m guessing Julia will still ultimately end up ascending to godhood.

Probably the only thing we can accurately predict at this point is that making Julia a villain will again mean that she doesn’t share a lot of screen time with Quentin or the rest of the cast.

The Beast Lives, and Maybe Alice, Eliot, and Margo too

You know, there’s actually a lot of potential leaving the Beast alive to continue as the villain in Season 2. The Magician King is somewhat weak on antagonists, and the events of that book seems to be the direction the showrunners are hinting at, since the room where they finally come face to face with Martin is referred to as “The Source of Magic.” There’s plenty of mischief they could invent for him to get up to that would tie back nicely to the quest to save magic – or even get into the material from The Magician’s Land.

However, the fact that the Brakebills did not defeat the Beast, thus ushering in the new golden reign of Fillory, leads me to believe that we won’t be seeing our heroes on the thrones right away. Even if the showrunners attempt to implement a modified version of the events from book two, no monarch (or subject, for that matter) would sit easily with the Beast still on the loose, and since Julia has asked for his help, it sounds like there’s a throne open.

But who to fill it? The finale deliberately left us guessing as to the fate of Eliot, Margo, and Alice, who is the obvious choice here to replace Julia. (For the love of Ember, please do not make Fen Eliot’s Queen.) The reign of Queen Alice would certainly shake up the royal dynamics, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s unlikely. If anyone ends up ruling Fillory, I think it’s unlikely to happen next season.

That means that what we saw this episode might be all we ever get of High King Eliot, and that’s pathetic. Whose stupid idea was it to force Eliot into an arranged marriage with a woman again?

Eliot and Margo had no visible wounds, which means we’ll almost certainly see them again. Whether they remain in Fillory to seek their thwarted battle with the Beast or they return to Earth…what’s waiting for them on Earth?

Poor Penny, at least, is probably not headed back to Earth. He ends the season in the most similar position to his book counterpart. The show has been foreshadowing his eventual destiny as a Librarian in the Neitherlands for several episodes, which I imagine is where we’ll find him next season, hopefully learning to do magic and live without his hands.

You have to wonder what the show would have done if they hadn’t been renewed for Season 2. Is there maybe an alternate version of the finale sitting in a drawer somewhere? Maybe one where they actually get to kill the Beast?  

The biggest complaint I have about the finale is that there was very little resolution, and the show failed to tie up several of the plots introduced in the last few episodes. It was an exciting story with lots of things going on, but…Julia’s story just took a nosedive (again), the Beast got away, and there was absolutely no payoff on the two full episodes we spent learning battle magic and being uncomfortable about Alice and Quentin’s relationship.

Seriously, the only reason to spend so much time introducing that Vulcan spell was to establish how important it is not to do magic when you are feeling strong emotion. And we had several characters who were obviously drowning in emotion. Not to mention the fact that after making a huge deal about the need to learn battle magic, once they get to Fillory they don’t have to battle anyone, not even the Beast. So that’s two threads that went nowhere, resulting in a climax that did not rise especially high.

The Lesson of Fillory

There’s one last thing I want to comment on. Go back to that first scene, when Quentin slices his hand open in order to enter Ember’s tomb. We see this scene first, but chronologically it comes after the test for the royal blood of the High King of Fillory. Quentin may not be the High King, but this scene shows that Quentin is royal where it counts. Reconstruct the timeline in your head. Quentin is the volunteer to kill the Beast, to save Fillory, he’s the one who keeps coming back, not because it was destiny but because he’s the only one who loves Fillory that much. He doesn’t hesitate to shed his blood for Fillory, cutting his hand not with a mystical knife but with a plain old stick. Whatever else happens, Quentin got to travel to the land of his dreams. That’s not an opportunity most of us will ever get.

We opened Season 1 as Quentin entered one magical world, Brakebills, wondering if this would be where he finally finds happiness. We close it having entered a second world, even more magical and longed-for than the first, and it has turned out to be a nightmare. At Brakebills, Quentin was expecting the world to deliver happiness to him because that’s what happens in fairytales. But in Fillory, Quentin stops living the story in his head, and takes the world for what it is. He accepts that he is too small for his dreams.

The show doesn’t connect these threads quite so explicitly. It can’t: this is the kind of lesson that can only be learned by living it. This is what The Magicians series is really about, both in the books, and now the show too. Quentin comes out on the other side of that lesson finally ready to take responsibility for his own happiness: he tells Alice he loves her, he helps his friend Julia, he goes to kill the Beast and save the world. We should all be so brave.


That concludes our recaps of Season 1 of SyFy’s The Magicians. Look for a final wrap up post on the best and worst of the adaptation next week!


All images courtesy of SyFy

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